What if the Colts had chosen Ryan Leaf over Peyton Manning?

Peyton Manning during his days at Tennessee.10 years ago, the Indianapolis Colts made a defining move for their franchise when they took Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning with the first overall pick of the 1998 NFL Draft.

That decision seems like a no-brainer now, given the run that Manning and the Colts have had over the last decade, but everything could have gone differently if newly-hired team president Bill Polian had said otherwise.

Leading up to the draft, there were two clear choices for the Colts: Manning and Washington State QB Ryan Leaf. I know, try to stifle your laughter, but this was anything but a no-brainer at the time. Manning had the edge over Leaf, but both signal-callers had the credentials to be the Colts’ choice.

Manning had started since his freshman year, and he could’ve left Tennessee after his junior year and been a high first-round choice. However, he returned for his senior season, where he threw for 3,819 yards and 36 touchdowns in leading the Vols to the SEC title, and finished runner-up to Charles Woodson for the Heisman Trophy.

He had the size, he had the physical tools, he was proven, and he had all of the intangibles to be a franchise quarterback. In his corner was not only excelling in the SEC for four seasons, but also the bloodlines, as father Archie was a star QB at Ole Miss, was drafted #2 by the New Orleans Saints in 1971, and spent 14 seasons in the NFL with the Saints, the Houston Oilers, and the Minnesota Vikings.

Then, there was Leaf, who had really burst onto the map with a monster junior season at Washington State, leading the Cougars to a 10-1 record and the Pac-10 title. Leaf spearheaded one of the best offenses in the country, throwing for 3,637 yards and 33 touchdowns in the regular season, then led the Cougars to a near-upset of national champion Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

Leaf had the size, the physical tools, and a boatload of potential himself. In his corner, he had the fact that former Cougar QB Drew Bledsoe had been drafted #1 by the Patriots five years earlier and had gone to three Pro Bowls and led the Pats to three playoff appearances and a Super Bowl in his first five seasons.

Behind the Colts, San Diego had moved up to #2 by making a big trade, and whoever Indianapolis didn’t select was going to fall to the Chargers, who were in need of a new starter under center after their trio of Stan Humphries, Craig Whelihan, and Jim ‘Don’t Call Me Chris’ Everett combined to throw only 12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in a woeful 4-12 season.

So, the decision that Polian and the Colts were going to make was not only going to affect their franchise, but San Diego’s as well, and as we know, the Colts ultimately decided on Manning, the Chargers took Leaf, and the rest is history.

Manning has two MVPs, a Super Bowl title, has been selected to eight Pro Bowls, and is set to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he hangs it up as one of the best ever, with his name potentially at the top of all of the major passing records. Polian has been a part of many great decisions over the years, including the next year when he took Edgerrin James instead of Ricky Williams, but this was one of his best, if not the best, of his two decades-plus of being in NFL front offices.

Leaf, meanwhile, had issues with accuracy and with his temper, and had fallen from grace well before his retirement in 2002. Now, Leaf is an assistant football coach and head golf coach at West Texas A&M, and from all accounts, he’s made peace with his past and is living a good life. Still, people would prefer to think of him for his mistake-filled career and his temper.

But what if the Colts had chosen Leaf, and the Chargers had chosen Manning?

Judging by what happened with Leaf in San Diego, the circumstances wouldn’t have been different in Indianapolis, as he wasn’t ready or mature enough regardless of the locale. And as a result, the Colts might have been in the situation the Chargers were in three years later, with the #1 pick, which they could have used on Michael Vick…or maybe like the Chargers, they would have taken Drew Brees in the second. And maybe, just maybe, Eli could have ended up being the Manning in the Colts uniform.

So many possibilities and ramifications stemming from that one selection that I’m best stopping before I go any further, because as it stands, I think Colts and Chargers fans are both pretty happy about the state of their franchises right now. The Chargers ended up coming out pretty good even after Leaf, because they swapped out that #1 pick in 2001 with Atlanta for the fifth overall pick, which they used on a running back that will have a bust in Canton in the next decade.

It’s amazing how one selection can make such a big difference down the road. That selection may not break your franchise, but it could certainly make it, as we’ve seen.

You can never tell how things are going to work out, because a player might not live up to his potential for one reason or another, and you might be left to second-guess what could’ve been, especially if the other guy you could’ve taken turns out to be a star.

So, for GMs who are busy thinking about what they’re going to do with their first-round picks on Saturday, and especially for Jeff Ireland and the Miami Dolphins, don’t over-think your choice, but don’t under-think it either.

Just for kicks, here’s one from the SI vault from April 1998 to check out.